I have not always lived here, in fact we came to north Georgia (Dalton) in 1988. Before a three-year stint in Macon, where my husband went to law school, we came from south Georgia, below Albany.
My husband sent himself through undergraduate school by working in a factory—Albany’s Firestone plant. Firestone, along with Proctor & Gamble and later Miller made Albany a pretty progressive town for rural south Georgia, at least we thought. He worked third shift in a building so big that supervisors rode bicycles within the plant. He was a tire builder, the most strenuous job there, but he was young and healthy and made $10 an hour when he “made production,” and once he was “beating production” he built up to $14.95 —this was PRIME bucks in the mid 70’s.
He told tales of how they loved it when a machine broke down; supervisors made them all stop until the machine could be fixed, putting them down to the minimum the union would let them collect, but keeping them safe from accidents. It was fun to sit around and do nothing occasionally, and he’d make it up later. As jobs went, he said, this one was as decent as any, and the pay was actually good. He didn’t want to STAY in factory work, but working there made him feel good about the blue-collar world. People worked hard and were compensated for what they did. The benefits were good. A man could support his family and not have to live hand to mouth, the way his father’s jobs had been after he left the military.
When we first moved to Dalton, Walmart, Kmart, and Kroger never ceased to amaze me: I had never in my life seen so many physically disabled people. Men in overalls with one shirtsleeve pinned together and empty. Lots of crutches. Men and women with missing arms, missing digits, and who “walked” like the elderly but were barely graying at the temples.
“What HAPPENED to all these people?” I asked on our first such trip.
“What DIDN’T happen was unions,” my husband said, and he told me what he had learned in the short time we had been in north Georgia.
“I heard older guys talk about it when I worked at Firestone,” he said, “but I never really believed it. They talked about the days before the union, when the longer you stayed, the more chance you had of looking like a war victim. I thought they were just talking, you know, like ‘fish stories,” exaggerating the way we all will when swapping tales. But the cases they’ve given me, at the office, since we moved here—I can see now those stories were really true.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I just got out of law school, and there are eleven other attorneys above me, so I pretty much get the ‘shit cases’ that no one else wants. But I’m okay with it—hell, I’m just happy to be here, ‘til I read about people like THEM.” He nodded his head to indicate the line of sad, rejected people sitting on the lone bench outside Kmart.
I tried to smile, knowing he was about to tell me something that really bothered him.
“What is it you found out?” I asked when we reached the car.
“Those people, or most people like them you see around here, are the results of having no unions in the carpet industry,” he said.
“Isn’t that like ILLEGAL?” I asked. (I was even more ignorant back then than now.)
“Apparently not. The people of north Georgia CHOSE to keep the unions out. It assured the drawing of bigger industry and more jobs for the working man.”
“At the risking of HURTING the working man, and woman, like THIS?” I was appalled.
“I guess so,” he said.
We were pretty quiet for the rest of the ride home. The whole idea was just too astounding to do much of anything but ponder it alone.
This was Dalton, 1988. Coming from middle and south Georgia, I’d already questioned the legality of the way things were done. In the school where I’d just started teaching, I couldn’t believe there were no African American administrators and teachers during preplanning. Then school began and there were no lunchroom workers, custodians, bus drivers, or STUDENTS either. When I got up the nerve to ask about it, I was told simply “they don’t live here” and looked at as though I was retarded. I had a lot to learn about Dalton.
Five years later, we had settled in Calhoun, when the next question about area unions reared its ugly head. Again, it came with a “work story” my husband brought home.
“I’ve got the saddest worker’s comp case I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s made me reexamine everything I think, believe, feel about family.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, not following at all from such an abrupt beginning.
“Got a client who lost two fingers, two separate times, and they wanna call him on it,” he explained.
“What?” I was more confused now than before.
“He lost his pinky finger in a machine, little over a year ago,” he said. “The plant paid his medical bills and compensated him for the loss. He’s a good worker, and was back on the job in a week.”
“Then he lost ANOTHER?” I asked.
“Yeah. Almost a year to the day. This time the one next to it, ring finger, again on his left hand. Paid his initial meds, then when he came back to work, he’d been fired. They say he did it on purpose.”
“That’s absurd!” I said. “Who would stick their hand in a machine, ON PURPOSE, knowing they would come away with a digit less—or worse? They’re crazy!”
“Truth is,” he said sadly, “he probably did it.” He didn’t sound surprised, or outraged, or even slightly disgusted—only sad.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you BELIEVE your client did this, do you? You’re as bad as the factory people!” I said.
“Seriously,” he said, “I don’t KNOW one way or another, and I’m not sure I want to know. The fact is, he lost a finger a year ago. As soon as he received his compensation check, he sent a lump sum to Guatemala, and soon thereafter his brother was living with him. Here in the states he has a wife and a baby, but back home he still has a father and two younger siblings. Their country is at war, and—-let’s just say living conditions at the animal shelter HERE might be better. He and his wife are legally here and they managed to bring the brother legally as well, but…”
“You’re telling me he CUT OFF A FINGER to bring his brother here? REALLY?”
“That’s the way it looks, enough so that the carpet factory is willing to fire him over it.”
“But how can they just—“
“It’s their word against his. No unions, remember? They don’t HAVE to keep him on if they don’t want to.”
“And you really think he got injured so—“
“It happens more times than you think. The factory has a set ‘price list’ already in place for such situations. The pinky is the cheapest, second and ring fingers next, with the ‘bird finger’ after that. Thumbs are expensive, and should be—you’d be surprised how much you limit yourself without one. Most don’t return to their previous job after losing a thumb.”
“No way,” I argued. “You’re telling me the company has a — a LIST of prices for losing fingers? That’s insane!”
“Insane? Afraid not. They’ve got it down to an art. Of course, they don’t WANT TO pay out any extra money, but it’s RIDICULOUSLY cheaper than all the extra costs a union would impose on them. A lot of times, the workers who’ll do this kinda thing are some of the best workers they have, so they’ll look the other way the first time, maybe more. But I guess it’s gotten so popular, with jobs so hard to come by they just don’t see the need anymore. Or something like that…”
I remember feeling sick at my stomach, the way I always feel when looking at a deep and open cut, a fresh-bleeding injury, a wounded animal on the side of the road. I looked at my husband, and knew I we were thinking the same thing.
Could I do this? Could he? We loved each other, our children. My parents were still living at the time, and I treasured them in every way. I felt sure that, should such a bizarre occasion arise, I could step in front of a speeding bullet or an oncoming train to offer my life instead of theirs, COULDN’T I?
Yet still, could I plan ahead, know for days/weeks/months what would happen and how it would feel, also knowing things could go wrong and the outcome be even worse? I wanted to be a person who loved that much, that extremely, that purely, but was I? How could I ever be sure?
I have lived in a place where unions were paramount in making good the lives of employees. But then I saw the factories fail, changing a once-happy suburbia into a ghost town. I moved into a place that said ‘no’ to unions; I saw multiple injuries people accepted as part of the territory. Even without unions, a fluctuating economy is closing factories every day, and we all want to blame the OTHER political party, the OTHER way of life, whoever doesn’t agree with our own personal beliefs.
I started writing this as I pondered the question “who likes the unions?” In doing so, the best answer I’ve come up with is that I at least like the good things they have done. I’ve seen some pretty bleak outcomes of areas WITHOUT unions. If “laws now protect employees” perhaps their time is over, but I will have to be a little more assured before I fully believe this. The only union I’ve known personally was for teachers, and I’m proud to say I never had to call on them for anything. Still, I’m glad to know they were there…